Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Table of Contents


1.  Crater Loops, Little Gore Canyon, Flaming Aspen and Other Vanishing Splendor

2.  Curtis Hill -- Cimarron River Valley

3.   Pecos River Bridge -- Fort Sumner, New Mexico 

4.   Crozier Canyon and Truxton Canyon -- Where the Waters Flow

5.  Crookton Cutoff -- Eagle Nest,Doublea, Crookton and Seligman

6.  Loma Alta, Lucy and the New Mexico High Plains 

7.  Tehachapi Loop Saved My Marriage 

8.   Travels with Mighty Dog in Search Of the Kansas City Southern;  Austin, Todd and Ladd; Arkansas and Oklahoma; Kansas and Oklahoma; Avard Subdivision and Other Oddities 

9.  BNSF Transcon in the Texas Panhandle 

10.  Abo Canyon:  Then and (S)now 

11.  Lombard Canyon and the Three Rivers 

12.  Mountains May Begin With Montana, but Fugichrome Ends With Me  

13.  Mullan Pass:  Mullan on my Mind 

14.  Kingman Canyon:  What am I Doing up Here?  

15.  BNSF Transcon:  Not Every Meeting is a Waste of Time 

16.  The Arbuckles are Worn Down, and I'm Headed There:  AT&SF and BNSF Railroad Photography From an Oklahoma Sinkhole  

17.  BNSF, UP and MRL in the Idaho Panhandle 

18.  Burlington Northern:  Trinidad to Walsenburg (Someone Built a Railroad Through Here?)

19.  Santa Fe on Curtis Hill (Things Ain't What They Used to Be) 

20.  BNSF West of Belen:  MP 27.8 to 31.9 

21.  BNSF at Flagstaff (and a little AT&SF)

22.  I Feel Like the Rock Island (Memories of a Stricken Railroad)

23.  Kansas City Southern:  Requiem for White Knights and Telephone Poles

24.  BNSF at Curtis Hill:  Where the West Begins

25.  Tennessee Pass:  Alas

26.  BNSF West of Wellington

27.  Cajon 2016:  Before the Fire 

28.  Union Pacific:  Aspen Mountain Through Echo Canyon

29.  Burlington Northern at Crawford Hill

30.  St. Louis Railroads -- as I Remember Them

31.  BNSF Across the Sacramento Valley:  Wild Burros and Cold Bears

32. She Caught the Katy and Left me a Mule to Ride

33.  Santa Fe in the Unassigned Lands

34.  BNSF:  Another Look at Crozier Canyon

35.  BNSF:  Colorado River to Goffs Hill

36.  Cajon Pass:  After the Fire

37.  BNSF in Oklahoma:  Avard Subdivision

38.  Back East!  Lost in the Trees

39.  Union Pacific:  The Craig Branch in its Prime

40.  Union Pacific from Point of Rocks to Granger:  Wherein Mighty Dog Clashes with the Serpent

41.  Trials and Tribulations of Train Photography

42.  The Frisco of my Youth:  Both Gone

43.  When That Evening Sun Goes Down:  Ellinor After Hours

44.  Nebraska's Sandhills in Transition

45.  BNSF:  Highway 47 to Mountainair

46.  Rock Island and Union Pacific on the Chisholm Trail

47.  Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Western Pacific Potpourri:  Arnold Loop, Echo Canyon, Aiken Hill, Sherman Hill and Donner Summit

48.  Lake Pend Oreille! or The Importance of the Angle of Incidence

49.  Sunset on the Missouri Pacific

50.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part One:  Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas)

51.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part Two:  Clovis to Belen)

52.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part Three:  Belen to Seligman)

53.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part Four:  Crozier Canyon to Cajon)

54.  Burlington Northern Blues (and Greens)

55.  Kansas City Southern:  Ouachita Mountains Revival

56.  BNSF:  Trinchera Pass

57.  BNSF at the Millennium in the Cherokee Strip

58.  O, Canada!

59.  Bridges, Trestles and Causeways

60.  I Feel Like the Rock Island, but I Dream of the Santa Fe

61.  A Brief Tour of Tehachapi

62.  The Flint Hills!

63.  The Only Place I Ever Felt at Home

64.  Rio Grande on the Moffat Route

65.  Six Days in the Desert (BNSF Transcon: Danby to Ash Hill) 

66.  Walking Backward to go Forward

67.  Rio Grande Across Soldier Summit (and Beyond)

68.  When the Arkansas was King



Belen Revisted

Many years ago (1931), F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story called "Babylon Revisted," in which a divorced, recovering alcoholic returns to Paris in a futile attempt to gain custody of his daughter from his deceased wife's sister.  The tale ends in a bar, with the protagonist  reminiscing about the old days (the 1920's) when everyone drank too much and had too much fun.

Recently Bear the Mighty Dog and I returned to Belen, New Mexico, after a several years' absence, to search for new photographic locations accessible only by a four-wheel-drive Jeep.  For some reason, the trip reminded me of Fitzgerald's short story, perhaps because, like the protagonist, Bear and I were seeking to recover something lost.  Our youth?  Possibly.

But as another Fitzgerald character (Nick Carraway) says in the novel The Great Gatsby:  "You can't repeat the past."

Perhaps not, which may be why these lines from "Babylon Revisted" resonate with me:

He wasn’t young anymore, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself.


As I told you, I haven't had more than a drink a day for over a year, and I take that drink deliberately, so that the idea of alcohol won't get too big in my imagination. 

Life for everybody was a struggle, sometimes magnificent from a distance, but always difficult and surprisingly simple and a little sad.


"Belen" means "Bethlehem" in English, and is also used to describe the crib that Jesus was born in, and thus also can mean "Nativity Scene," so Mighty Dog and I were not returning to Babylon; we were returning to the birthplace of Christ.

Yet the trip somehow felt sad, maybe because I could not stop thinking about F. Scott Fitzgerald. 


November 2020.  Bear the Mighty Dog and your author set out for Belen, New Mexico, to revisit old familiar places.  The last time we visited central New Mexico, there were about ten inches of snow on the ground, and we were both younger and spryer.  Near sundown, after driving all day, we stopped along BNSF's Transcon west of Vaughan to photograph this eastbound Z-train in the fading light.

As is often the case on the Transcon, another eastbound was close behind.  Here are the DPUs on that stack train.

A third eastbound was close behind the second.

At one time, people knew all about Scott Fitzgerald and would have understood why I felt sad thinking about him, but in the 21st century, he is mostly unknown; his star has fallen below the horizon and likely will not rise again -- a victim of changing tastes and the simple passage of time.  In high school (1967), I read The Great Gatsby and was mesmerized, both by the prose and by the tragedy.  Although I had not lived in what Fitzgerald called the "Jazz Age" (as had my parents and grandparents), through the novel I felt kinship to that time and place, in part because I knew people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Thirty-five years later my son read the same novel and hated it so much that he fell asleep in class every time  it was discussed.  I know, because his teacher told me.  (This is unfair to my son, who reads voraciously, but I like the sound of it, some I'm leaving it in.)

At least my son did not try to hide his distaste, reminding me of Gatsby's friend Nick Carraway:

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. 


As you drive downgrade through Abo Pass, the Manzano Mountains frame the view like a skillful cinematographer.  This range is only about 30 miles long, north to south; the Transcon ducks around the southern end through Abo Canyon.  Eastbounds climbing the grade  seem only a stone's throw away from the tallest peak.

This image, like the previous one, was taken after a short hike into the hills above the tracks.  In the not-too-distant past, Mighty Dog would have followed the author, searching madly for food and small critters hiding among the cacti.  But Mighty Dog is old now, spends most of his day sleeping and elected, in this instance, to remain in the Jeep.

Pushers beneath Manzano Mountains.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, but grew up mostly in New York.  He attended Princeton but did not graduate, instead dropping out and enlisting in the Army.  While stationed in Alabama, he met and eventually married Zelda Sayre, the socialite daughter of wealthy parents.  According to Scott:  "She is the most charming person in the world. That’s all. I refuse to amplify. Excepting -- she’s perfect."

This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's first novel, was published shortly after his 24th birthday in 1920 and became an immediate critical and financial success, propelling him into the middle of New York social life.  His wife, however, had a few choice words about the book:  

It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald (I believe that is how he spells his name) seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.

As you follow U.S. 60 west through the gap between the Manzano and Los Pinos Mountains, the terrain opens suddenly to the broad valley of the Rio Grande, about 15 miles wide, sloping noticeably east to west downgrade through high desert country to a narrow channel of green water surrounded by an even narrower forest of even greener trees that look as out of place in this dry land as a tuxedo in a foundry.  Your author and Mighty Dog stopped beside the highway to take this image of eastbound stacks climbing the grade toward Abo Canyon.

Westbound headed to Belen.  Notice the stylish graffiti on the third car, a welcome change from the cartoonish script favored by most railroad artists.


Like most of their contemporaries, Scott and Zelda drank too much -- way too much.  

"First you take a drink," Fitzgerald once said.  "Then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

Ernest Hemingway, another alcoholic, liked Fitzgerald but thought he should devote himself more to his work:

I’d like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn’t get anywhere. You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It’s not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you’re a rummy.   

One cold morning, clouds hugged the peaks of the Manzano Mountains, followed shortly by light rain, the first the desert had seen in months.  Mighty Dog stayed safely in the Jeep, while your intrepid author stood outside with his waterproof F5, photographing BNSF power grinding upgrade to Abo Canyon.

Late that evening, two freights meet beneath darkening skies soon to be black.

Most all of Fitzgerald's fiction involved alcohol -- the drunken parties thrown by Jay Gatsby, for example, or the young married couple who drink all day and night in The Beautiful and the Damned, published in 1922, another critical and financial success.  Yet the alcoholism in Fitzgerald's fiction never seemed a personal indictment.  His characters were generally sympathetic, even when acting their worst. 

In the 1920's, Fitzgerald and Zelda partied spectacularly through New York and Paris.  When the poet and essayist Dorothy Parker first met them, Zelda and Scott were sitting atop a taxi. Parker said, "They did both look as though they had just stepped out of the sun; their youth was striking."

Despite their reputations, neither handled liquor well.  Fitzgerald became extremely theatrical when drunk, as did Zelda, acting foolish, embarrassing friends.

Here is Hemingway's description from A Moveable Feast:

[I]t was hard to accept him as a drunkard, since he was affected by such small quantities of alcohol.

In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer. I loved all wines except sweet or sweetish wines and wines that were too heavy, and it had never occurred to me that sharing a few bottles of fairly light, dry, white Macon could cause chemical changes in Scott that would turn him into a fool. [Emphasis added.]

After the tracks cross New Mexico 47, they veer northwest through the valley of the Rio Grande and are accessible on a remote and very rugged road that leads to a cattle ranch.  The Jeep had little trouble on this terrain, though the author carefully avoided the large pockets of sand that showed up from time to time.  Above are westbound stacks heading toward the river and Belen.

Same stacks meet an eastbound Z-train.

After the publication of The Beautiful and the Damned, Fitzgerald's literary, financial and marital fortunes wained.  By the time of the stock market crash of 1930, he was out of money, his wife had suffered a nervous breakdown and his literary reputation was in tatters.  He had written The Great Gatsby while living with Zelda on the French Riviera, at a time when their money was running low, and he was flummoxed when his editor Maxwell Perkins cabled him that the book was not selling well.

Westbound grain.

Another meet in the valley of the Rio Grande.

An entire eastbound Z-train climbing toward Abo Canyon beneath the Manzano Mountains.

"Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view," said L.P. Hartlet in the Saturday Review. "The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.”

H.L. Mencken wrote:  

Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that. The scene is the Long Island that hangs precariously on the edges of the New York city ash dumps—the Long Island of gaudy villas and bawdy house parties. The theme is the old one of a romantic and preposterous love—the ancient fidelis ad urnum motif reduced to a macabre humor. The principal personage is a bounder typical of those parts—a fellow who seems to know everyone and yet remains unknown to all—a young man with a great deal of mysterious money, the tastes of a movie actor and, under it all, the simple sentimentality of a somewhat sclerotic fat woman.


Westbound potash rolling downgrade.  Because the BNSF patrols this section of the line so carefully, the photographer took this image at the fence line, approaching over the open desert, avoiding the service road beside the tracks.

The potash train stopped at the signal, and BNSF 4613 West ran around it.

A sparkling clean pusher on westbound stacks.  This image was also taken after a jaunt across the open desert, which receives about 7.5 inches of rain per year.  In comparison, the Mojave Desert receives about 2.5 inches per year, so Belen and environs seem almost lush.

Not only did The Great Gatsby flop (at the time of Fitzgerald's death, the publisher still held copies of the original printing in its warehouse), but the four filmed versions of the story have also been critical misfires.   

The 1974 version, staring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, received the following comment:

Every single aspect of the new film is bad. Even Robert Redford, fine actor and attractive man, presents a Gatsby who is a dopey mooner instead of a subtle, large exponent of an American tragedy. . . .  If Redford fails, then failure is too kind a term for Mia Farrow as Daisy, a skeleton in amour; or Bruce Dern as Tom, supposedly a well-bred gentleman who despises his parvenu neighbor but who looks and sounds like a nervous shoe clerk; or Lois Chiles as Jordan, another cover-girl trying to be an actress; or Karen Black as Myrtle, a writhing gargoyle; or Sam Waterston who looks right enough as Nick but whose voice is stultifyingly boring. Since he does a great deal of voice-over narration, Waterston hurts the picture a great deal.  


Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic.


Westbound autos, without a crew, are stopped near the bottom of the grade.

A westbound manifest runs around the auto-racks.

This and other negative reviews mystify your author.  I do not feel competent to comment on the filmed versions (though I enjoyed the two that I have seen) but I find the novel (and the story it tells) magnificent, partly because of its excellent prose.  The novel's ending is representative:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Although generally disliking the book, H.L. Mencken did recognize the fine writing:

The story, for all its basic triviality, has a fine texture, a careful and brilliant finish. The obvious phrase is simply not in it. The sentences roll along smoothly, sparklingly, variously. There is evidence in every line of hard and intelligent effort. 

In the late 20th century, both Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby were critically reappraised and found excellent -- a status much deserved -- but in the 21st century (January 2021), Fitzgerald is virtually unknown to the general public, certainly to anyone under 40.  Could it be because the novel implicitly criticizes the American urge to acquire wealth?  Could it be because Gatsby, a decent man at heart (even though a criminal) loses both his dreams and his life?  Because Tom and Daisy wander off to Europe somewhere without suffering anything at all for their conduct?  Remember:  Daisy was driving the hit and run vehicle that killed a woman and eventually led to Gatsby's death.

Perhaps Nick Carraway said it best:  "There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired."

After leaving Belen, eastbound freights cross the Rio Grande, then make a sharp turn to the south to begin their climb up the grade to Abo Canyon.  Here a short manifest has just crossed the river.

Two freights just east of the Rio Grande.

Fitzgerald sent a copy of The Great Gatsby to Hemingway, asking for an honest opinion.  Hemingway wrote back that Fitzgerald needed to write more about his own life and less about the wealthy people he knew.  If you are familiar with The Great Gatsby, that comment is incredible, since the story involves a young soldier who falls in love with a wealthy teen-ager who will not marry him because he is poor.  That is the story of Zelda Sayre, who initially refused marriage, only to change her mind after Fitzgerald's first novel was published and he became well-to-do overnight.

West of Belen, the Transcon climbs out of the river valley on a northwest diagonal like a sailboat tacking into the wind.  Above are westbound stacks grinding upgrade.

  The terrain here is desert sand, with a thin covering of dry vegetation.  Reaching this location for photography requires aerial photographs and a vehicle capable of handing thick sand.  While spending an afternoon here, your author and Bear saw only three dune buggies raising dust clouds on the southern horizon.  Otherwise, we had the country to ourselves.  Though we could see civilization strung like pearls along the river to the east, we were quite alone.  Had we gotten stuck in the sand, your author doubts that a wrecker could have found us.

DPUs of same train.

Pusher on same train.

The line west of Belen is triple-tracked up the grade.  Immediately behind the stacks was this loaded coal train on Main 2.

Here is the coal train futilely chasing the stacks.

While Scott was writing The Great Gatsby, Zelda began an affair with Edouard S. Jozan, a French pilot, swimming with him in the afternoons on the Riviera beaches and dancing away the evenings at the casinos.  She soon asked for a divorce.  Fitzgerald initially demanded to confront Jozan, but instead locked Zelda in their house until she abandoned her request. Jozan left the Riviera later that year; Zelda never saw him again.

These events are reflected in Gatsby, when Tom confronts Gatsby about the latter's affair with Daisy.  Gatsby implores Daisy to state clearly that she does not love Tom, but she cannot do it.  She loved him once, she says.  Tom shouts that she still loves him.  This is likely Fitzgerald's imagined scene of the confrontation he never had with Jozan.

In the novel, Gatsby and Daisy then leave in Gatsby's roadster.  Shortly thereafter occurs the accident that begins the cascade of tragedy leading to Gatsby's death.

An eastbound empty coal train is stopped on Main 1 while eastbound stacks run around it on Main 2.

At dusk, westbound stacks climb out of the valley of the Rio Grande.

In real life, the tragedy occurred more slowly.  In 1930, Zelda was diagnosed in France as a schizophrenic and placed in a clinic in Montreux, Switzerland.  Later, she moved to a psychiatric facility on Lake Geneva.  Released in September 1931, she and Scott returned to Alabama, where her father was dying.  Shortly before Mr. Sayre's death, Scott left for a screen-writing job in California and was not present when the elder Mr. Sayre passed.  In February 1932, Zelda returned to a psychiatric clinic in the United States.

It is unfair to note that Zelda was a burden in the marriage without also commenting on Fitzgerald's foibles.  In one of his collected letters, he mentioned that Zelda had threatened to leave him if he did not stop drinking.  He then claimed that his wife was the cause of his alcoholism.  "[T]he regular use of wine and apperatives [sic] was something that I dreaded but she encouraged because she found I was more cheerful then and allowed her to drink more.”

In the same letter, however, Fitzgerald also admitted that his drinking would lead to "suffering and death perhaps but not renunciation," because alcohol was "one of the rights of man."

West of Belen.  The desert grass grows in soft sand waiting to snare the unwary traveller.  For some reason, perhaps the law of averages, your author did not get stuck.

In 1932, while receiving treatment in Baltimore, Zelda wrote a novel titled Save Me the Waltz and sent it to Fitzgerald's editor, Maxwell Perkins.  Scott was furious when he read the book, claiming that Zelda had employed biographical material that he planned to use in his next work, Tender is the Night, which would eventually be published in 1934.  He forced his wife to remove the material he wanted, denouncing her as "a third-rate writer."  Her book was published in 1932 to the same mostly negative reviews that Tender is the Night later received.

Fitzgerald spent the remainder of the decade supporting himself by writing short stories and working for a Hollywood studio in a failed attempt to master the art of the screenplay.  Director Billy Wilder described Fitzgerald's foray into Hollywood as "a great sculptor hired to do a plumbing job."  The critic Edmund Wilson suggested that Hollywood sucked Fitzgerald's creativity as a vampire sucks blood.

In 1940 Fitzgerald, only 44, died of a heart attack.  Your author has read, in sources that may or may not be reliable, that shortly before he died, Fitzgerald was drinking as many as 40 bottles of beer a day.

Zelda continued checking in and out of medical facilities and died in a hospital fire in 1948, aged 48.


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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

California 2020


The story that follows involves a recent rail trip my mother, wife and I took to California.  The photographs were all acquired on Beaumont Hill in southern California:  San Gorgonio Pass on the east and San Timoteo Canyon on the west. San Gorgonio Pass is a 2,600 feet high gap between the San Bernardino Mountains on the north and the San Jacinto Mountains on the south. Formed along the San Andreas Fault, the pass is the transition zone between the mild climate to the west and desert to the east.  San Timoteo Creek formed the canyon of the same name and flows northwest to its confluence with the Santa Ana River.

Your author originally intended that the text would discuss the geography of San Gorgonio Pass and San Timoteo Canyon, but events of the trip intervened.  Thus, the following images do not necessarily match the text.  That is a defect I am compelled to live with, because this story tells itself.

Mid-trains on westbound stacks are climbing San Gorgonio Pass.

My mother turned 90 in December 2019, and my wife and I had planned to take her on a cruise to Europe in April 2020.  However, fate intervened in the form of Covid 19.  My mother decided she did not want to spend weeks confined to a large boat with hundreds of old people, so we cancelled.


But as April turned to May, then May to June, the old girl became restless.  She loves to travel and has seen more of the world than I can imagine – places like China and India.  She communicates with me by talking to my wife, and so my wife one afternoon told me that my mother wanted to take a trip. 

More mid-trains on San Gorgonio Pass.

“Well, what kind of trip?” I asked, not unreasonably.


My wife said that she did not know.  Just a trip.  My mother wanted to take a trip, and she wanted me to plan it.


“Why me?”


“Because you are her son.”

I have lived long enough to know that I would not win that argument, so I planned a trip by train from Denver to Emeryville, California, on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, and then from Emeryville to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight.  The Zephyr is the heir of the train of the same name operated into the 1960’s by the Burlington, Rio Grande and Western Pacific.  All three railroads have since disappeared, the Burlington swallowed by BNSF, the Rio Grande and Western Pacific by Union Pacific.  The Coast Starlight retains the name of the Southern Pacific train running up and down the California coast from Oakland to L.A.  Both trains soldier on through government subsidy.  I believe they are the two most spectacular train rides in North America.  My wife and I had ridden the Zephyr twice previously and loved it so much that we were excited about a third trip.  I had ridden the train south from San Jose once in December, 1971, while in college, shortly after Amtrak’s creation.  That train was running hours late.  By the time we reached the ocean, the sun was down, the sky dark.  I wanted to see the ocean by train and was therefore suitably engaged.  And my mother seemed pleased.

We made our reservations, flew to Denver and spent the night in the Oxford Hotel, a grand building constructed in the 19th century, only one block from the train station.  That evening Joe Biden and Donald Trump were holding their first presidential debate, which my wife and mother watched in my mother’s room.  I refused to watch and stayed in the separate room my wife and I had booked.  To me, watching a presidential “debate” is about the same thing as listening to the disembowelment of a cat.  Nothing even close to a debate transpires.  Instead, each candidate spends the allotted time hurling ad hominem missiles across the stage.


“My opponent pushes children into the Royal Gorge!”


“My opponent stores nuclear waste in baby strollers!”


That sort of thing. 


The guttural level of political discourse in this country is depressing.  I know there are competent people in the land, but none dares run for public office.  Our politicians are narcissists to the core.


The next morning we checked out of the hotel and made the short walk to Denver Union Station.  Both my wife and mother were complaining about the “debate.”  


“What is wrong with this country?”  my wife said.  “Why is everything so polarized?”


“People aren’t as religious as they used to be,” my mother replied -- her standard answer to almost every question.


Denver has recently significantly enlarged the boarding platforms at its magnificent train station to make space for trains from its new light rail system.  To reach the tracks where the passenger trains stop, one must walk below ground, beneath the light rail tracks, then take elevators to the surface.  However, the elevators were not operating.  Instead, large signs announced that Amtrak passengers were required to take the stairs to avoid close contact.  Covid 19, you know.


Stairs are not a problem for me, but they are challenging for my 90-year-old mother.  Also, we all were dragging large suitcases for a 16 days’ trip.  Neither wife nor mother could navigate the suitcases up the stairs, so your author was required to carry everything to the surface.


I once heard a woman complain that men make more money than women.  I heard a man reply, “That’s because, when the Titanic goes down, you and the children get to board the life boats, and we have to stay behind and drowned.”


The train was on time, and we settled into our bedroom suites – one for my mother, another for my wife and myself.  The train was only about 40 percent full.  The four coaches were 

almost empty.  The two sleeper cars, however, were completely full, both roomettes and bedrooms. 


As I sat down in the bedroom, I could hear two men talking in the adjacent chamber.  One appeared to be on a cell phone:  “We were going to fly, but all flights were cancelled,” he said, clearly miffed.  “So we decided to take the train.  We thought we’d be there [California] before sundown.  Now they tell us we have to spend the night on the train, and we’ll arrive tomorrow afternoon!” 

Westbound stacks are rolling downgrade through San Timoteo Canyon on the west side of Beaumont Hill.

Our attendant was a pleasant young woman, short with black hair and prominent cheeks, who told us that in one week, Amtrak was cutting back all long-distance passenger trains, including the California Zephyr, to three days per week.


“I’ve only got 12 years seniority,” she said, “so I’ll probably get laid off.”

The ride out of Denver up the Front Range, through Big Ten Loop and the Tunnel District, is the most dramatic I have ever taken.  I have always been startled that construction of a railroad across the front range seemed possible to anyone.  Unlike other lines, from Denver there is no opening into the mountains from the east.  The Donner Pass route follows the Truckee River.  The Solider Summit line follows the Price River.  The Tennessee Pass line (when operational) followed the Arkansas River.  But not the line west out of Denver.  The mountains rise beyond the city like a stockade, like a chain link fence topped with razor-wire, like a wall of cinder-blocks.

Eastbound stacks descending San Gorgonio Pass.

Thus, as the tracks approach the mountains, they turn sideways from west to south, then make a 180 degrees loop up the slope, on a curve of ten degrees, which is why this engineering marvel is called Big Ten Loop.  As we ascended in the observation car, my wife and mother asked me to explain why the tracks appeared to be running in circles.  I told them that trains are so heavy that they cannot climb steep grades.  Thus, tracks curve back and forth up the side of a mountain like a sail boat tacking into the wind.  Since neither my wife nor mother knows anything about sailing (and I don’t know much), the analogy was lost, so we contented ourselves with admiring the golden Aspen along the slopes and the more than 30 tunnels traversed before we reached the big tunnel under Rollins Pass.

We were in the dark for about ten minutes, during which the air pressure dropped as in the cabin of an airplane during take-off.  I swallowed several times to relieve the stress on my eardrums.  When we popped out of the west portal into the middle of a ski resort, the air pressure increased, and I swallowed again.  The sunlight was blinding.  I thought of the hundreds (thousands?) of men who worked on the tunnel.  Although I am not claustrophobic, the idea of blasting rock several miles beneath the middle of a mountain gave me pause.  Perhaps my career choice of the law had been wise.

We arrived in Grand Junction in mid-afternoon, and the conductor came on the public address system to announce that the small store beside the station was closing after more than 30 years, because ridership on the California Zephyr had dropped precipitously.  That, plus Amtrak’s announcement that it would cut service to three days per week, was simply too much for the store’s owner, who was nearing retirement, anyway.

An eastbound manifest climbs San Timoteo Canyon on the way to the summit of Beaumont Hill.

“We’re stopping for 15 minutes,” the conductor said.  “I would appreciate it if you would take the time to walk inside and say good-by to Lou.  This is the last day.”

My wife and mother walked inside to say good-by to Lou.  I walked to the front of the train to take a few images of the motive power, images that were subsequently lost, as will be discussed below.

Westbound stacks pass eastbound stacks at dusk on San Gorgonio Pass.  The billboards are along Interstate 10.


Our sleep that evening was pleasant, though I must admit that each time my wife and I ride the train to California, the bedrooms seem smaller.  Since they obviously have not shrunk, the problem must lie in our perception – just another facet of aging.  The bedrooms seem smaller because we grow less mobile each year.  Thus, it is more difficult to make the movements necessary to navigate in close quarters.

A heavy westbound manifest struggles into the grade at San Gorgonio Pass.

The nighttime ride across Nevada was smooth. I don't think I awoke at all, nor did my wife, who usually has trouble sleeping on trains, though she falls asleep almost instantly in moving automobiles.  The sun was just rising as we pulled into Reno, down the long submerged open trench that the mainline now ploughs through the middle of town, effectively eliminating traffic congestion at what must have been some considerable construction cost.  We dressed slowly, trying unsuccessfully not to bump into each other, then made our way to the dining car for breakfast.

We pulled out of Reno and soon were following the Truckee River into the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which rise above Reno as precipitously as does the Front Range above Denver.  The climb is slow and steady through the deepening canyon.  Soon towering trees make their appearance, like mama cats watching over newborns.  Then we arrive in a narrow valley and roll slowly into Truckee, which in early October is fresh and smartly decorated, as though each of the small wooden buildings -- with tall sloping roofs to handle heavy snows -- has recently been painted.

From our train window, I see one of the huge Union Pacific rotary snow plows, a gigantic open fan on the front of a railroad car holding the engine that drives the blades.  Your author has never been to Truckee with snow on the ground, but the plow makes me think that depth of the snow must be measured in feet.  A quick check on the Internet indicates that Truckee averages a little over 200 inches (about 17 feet) per winter.  Donner Summit, where our train is headed, averages a little over 400 inches per winter (about 34 feet), making it one of the snowiest locations in the lower 48 states!

Eastbound stacks gliding downgrade.

I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be surrounded by 30 feet of snow, but I remembered reading years ago that John Steinbeck was once the winter caretaker of a property deep in these mountains. 

I was the caretaker on a summer estate during the winter months when it was snowed in. And I made some observations then. As time went on I found that my reactions thickened. Ordinarily I am a whistler. I stopped whistling. I stopped conversing with my dogs, and I believe that the subtleties of feeling began to disappear until finally I was on a pleasure-pain basis. Then it occurred to me that the delicate shades of feeling, of reaction, are the result of communication, and without such communication they tend to disappear. A man with nothing to say has no words. Can its reverse be true -- a man who has no one to say anything to has no words as he has no need for words?  Travels with Charley in Search of America.
Soon we entered what the Union Pacific dispatchers call the “Big Hole,” the two mile tunnel beneath Mount Judah, named for Theodore D. Judah, the locating engineer of the Central Pacific, who surveyed the original route across the mountains.  (The Big Hole was part of a later construction project bypassing a portion of the original line to avoid some of the massive snowfalls.)

Mid-trains on east side of Beaumont Hill.

We crested the summit at Norden, which once contained several long wooden snow sheds, all of which have been removed, along with the tracks they once guarded.  Several stretches of the line across the mountains, including the Big Hole, are now single track.  Each time I have ridden the California Zephyr, freight traffic through the Sierras has not been heavy, which has also been my experience the three times (over almost 40 years) that I have photographed this territory.


As we rolled west in the foothills above Sacramento, we noticed a growing number of tents along the tracks – tents of every shape and size imaginable, some as large as rooms, others as tiny as sleeping bags, red and blue and black and grey.  And not just tents, but shopping carts, rusted toasters, streams of paper, tin cans, shovels, shoes.  If you could imagine it, you could probably find it strewn somewhere along the tracks.  And there were people in and around the tents, mostly men, mostly unshaven, long-haired, mostly light-skinned though some brown, mostly tired-looking, forlorn, beaten-down, like a long line in front of a Salvation Army Center.  

As we approached each small foothills’ town, we saw the same tents, the same detritus, the same tired men, reminding me of the shanty towns my father had described as lining the river in west Oklahoma City during the Great Depression.  (I was born in 1950, and by the time I was old enough to remember such things, the shanty towns were gone, removed by Urban Renewal.)

Eastbound stacks.

When we reached Sacramento, the tents were almost thick as houses.  We were sitting in the observation car, and I heard someone whisper “Homeless People” in the same tone that someone else would have whispered “cancer” or “leprosy.”

A man said, “That’s why Emily left Sacramento.  She couldn’t abide all the filth.”

A young woman walking through the car stopped and said to us, “Watch out for that fellow in the back.  He’s crazy.”  Then she hurried to the end of the car and disappeared through the sliding door.  

I turned and saw in the rear of the observation lounge a short man with a torn coat and shoulder-length oily hair.  He was not looking at me or anyone else.  Instead, he was staring intently at the back of one hand, as though someone had written something there, something important.  Every now and then he would mutter in a guttural tone, the sound one hears in northern Scotland, as though the speaker’s mouth is filled with gravel. 

A rock train in San Timoteo Canyon, with the San Bernardino Mountains in the background.

San Gorgonio Pass.  The third engine is the Western Pacific heritage unit.

He looked as ragged and forlorn as the men in the tents beside the railroad tracks, and I wondered when he had boarded the train – and how.  Did he have the money for the fare?  Occasionally, his voice would grow louder, as though arguing with himself.

As the train stopped at the Sacramento station, the conductor opened the door of the observation lounge, stepped inside, stopped beside the ragged man and said something.  The ragged man shouted something back.  The only words I could understand were “Fuck you!”

More shouting ensued from both men.  Then another Amtrak employee walked into the car.  The ragged man kept shouting but soon enough stood up and allowed himself and his grip to be escorted from the observation lounge.

“That’s scary,” my wife said, and I have to admit that I felt relieved when that man was escorted from the car.  Looking out the window, in a minute or so I saw the man walking along the platform.

“I think he’s gone,” I said to my wife.

Soon we were rolling west again across what had once been swamp land in the delta of the Sacramento River.  The ground was now drained, however, the reeds and grass replaced by row upon row of green truck crops.  I have heard that if you drop a seed into this fertile ground, a tree will appear the next day.  I think I might believe that.

The door at the end of the observation car opened, and the ragged man appeared again, carrying his grip.  He sat down and began examining his hands again, mumbling.

Union Pacific in the San Gorgonio Pass windfarm.

“Jesus,” my wife said under her breath.

Our train would soon arrive in Emeryville – end of the line – and we needed to return to our bedrooms to gather our things.  That required walking past the ragged mumbling man.  Not surprisingly, there was now no one else in the observation car.

I told my wife and mother that I would lead the way.  “Stay behind me,” I said.

Were we overreacting?  I thought we might be, but it is difficult to be too careful when your wife and 90-year-old mother are involved.  And later events make me now think that we may not have been careful enough.

We rose and walked slowly down the car.  As we approached, the man peered up, staring directly at me.  He looked as though he might stand, but instead he just sat there, staring.  I stood in front of him while my wife and mother walked past through the sliding door into the next car.  Then he said something in that same guttural tone that I could not understand.  He mumbled again.  I looked at him a moment longer, then pressed the panel on the sliding door and exited the observation lounge.
We arrived in Emeryville late that afternoon.  Forest fires to the northeast had colored the Bay Area dark crimson, reminding me of a glowing red warning light on an automobile’s instrument panel.

The Emeryville station sits just north of the Powell Street overpass, beneath which were more than fifty tents standing among a jumble of rags, cans, dogs, even a few automobile tires.  The whole affair looked like a refugee camp from the Middle East.

We would catch the train south the following morning and so were spending the night in a hotel across the tracks to the west, surmounted by a walkway accessed by ground level elevators.  When the elevator door opened, we were greeted by the pungent odor of human urine and steel walls covered with graffiti.  My mother and wife entered first.  I paused outside a moment to make certain that no one else was approaching.

The front door to our hotel was locked.  We knocked on the window to gain the attention of the woman behind the desk.  She smiled, came forward and opened the door, saying nothing.

The lobby was bereft of furniture, its chairs now blocking the entrance to a restaurant obviously closed.  We checked in and obtained the magnetic cards to our rooms.  There was no one else in the lobby, nor in the elevator that we rode to the seventh floor.  From the window of our small room, I looked across the roofs of Emeryville to what I knew should have been the Berkeley Hills, but I could not see them.  All I saw was dark red haze in receding twilight. 
We boarded the Coast Starlight the next morning.  The train was clean and pleasant, the attendants professional and friendly, and we rolled south out of Emeryville on time, passing the now familiar tent cities scattered up and down the right-of-way.  Dining car service, as on the California Zephyr, had been reduced to pre-packaged meals micro-waved in the kitchen below.  I no longer remember what we ate for breakfast, but my mother and wife enjoyed the coffee, as well as the stories told by the dining car attendant, who seemed a little lonely, probably because we were his only customers in a mostly empty train.  I did not have the heart to ask about coming lay-offs.

Southern California desert.

We traveled south through the East Bay to our stop in San Jose, past significant sections of undeveloped land in a National Wildlife Refuge, an oasis in the desert of subdivisions and shopping malls.  South of San Jose, the hills closed rapidly as we navigated through Coyote Creek Valley.  South of Gilroy we were in truck farm country again, green crops blanketing the flatland.  

At Sargent we turned west, left the valley and followed a narrow creek into the hills.  Soon we were rolling along the edge of a rock quarry that seemed a thousand miles from civilization, though we had departed the 101 freeway only about ten miles behind.  We continued west for several miles, then came out of the hills into another valley of truck farms.  Each field was surrounded by pick-ups and cars.  Laborers were spread throughout like ants, everywhere, hundreds in all directions.  We were in the Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville, with one of the mildest climates in North America.  Year round, the high temperature is rarely lower than sixty degrees, nor higher than seventy.  

We followed Elkhorn Slough south through swampland and trees within about two miles of the Pacific Ocean to Castroville, the “Artichoke Capital of the World.”  When I was in college in 1969, I ate a Thanksgiving meal with the family of a student friend in Castroville, a friend named Maria Concepcion Hernandez.  Her family’s first language was Spanish.  An ignorant Okie, I knew nothing about the Spanish colonization of California, nothing about El Camino Real and the Spanish missions.  I was as green as they come.  I sat mostly in silence while the family laughed and reminisced in their native tongue.

Eastbound climbing the grade in San Timoteo Canyon.

Sunset on Beaumont Hill.

Then we were in Salinas, the childhood home of John Steinbeck, who described the long valley in which the town sits:

The land cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley. The cows would grow thin and sometimes starve to death. People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking. Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.  East of Eden.

South of town were more truck farms, plus huge orchards with long rows of trees like ranked soldiers.  My wife, mother and I were sitting in the observation car when the train slowed to a stop, not on a siding, just sitting on the mainline.  This particular route of the Union Pacific sees little other than two passenger trains, so I knew we were not waiting on traffic ahead.  I wondered if mechanical trouble were the culprit.  Were we marooned in the Salinas Valley?

We sat for at least thirty minutes.  Then a sheriff’s vehicle, lights flashing, came down the service road beside the tracks., beyond which stood a linearly arranged citrus orchard.  Then another patrol car appeared.  Then two sheriff’s deputies climbed out of each vehicle and boarded the train several cars behind us.

In time, one deputy emerged, walking slowly, holding the arm of a long-haired man in his mid-twenties, wearing jeans and a dark shirt.  The deputy led him to the patrol car, where the young man leaned forward and placed both hands on the hood.  The deputy was saying something to him.  The young man looked around.  The deputy grabbed him, handcuffed his arms behind his back and shoved him into the back seat.

A woman next emerged, short with long disheveled hair, talking excitedly to the deputy who followed, her arms waving as though conducting Ives’ 2nd Symphony.  She was not handcuffed, nor did the deputy grab her.  Instead, she walked slowly to the patrol car and climbed docilly into the same back seat.

Several minutes then passed.  My wife, mother and I took turns trying to guess what was going on.  My wife thought that they had not paid their fare.  I said I doubted that armed deputies would drive out into the middle of a citrus orchard for that.

My mother thought they were illegal aliens.  

“Why in the world would they be on the Coast Starlight?” I said.

My mother thought for a moment, then said, “People aren’t as religious as they used to be.”

“Drugs,” I replied.

“Drugs?” both mother and wife replied simultaneously.

Two deputies emerged from the train, holding a very large man by each arm.  His hands were cuffed behind his back, but he looked big enough to do serious damage even without the use of hands.  The deputies led him to the second patrol car and shoved him inside.  In another minute both vehicles drove away.

Westbound approaching Beaumont, California.

The train started rolling south again under pristine California skies.  At the far end of the observation car, the door slid open and in walked a young man in his mid-thirties, wearing a suit and tie that looked as out of place in 21st century California as a Nativity scene.

He smiled and introduced himself as an Amtrak Passenger Representative.  He asked if we were enjoying our trip.

“What happened back there?” I said.

He replied that the three people removed from the train were harassing other passengers.  “It happens every week or so on this train,” he said matter-of-factly, shrugging.

“Harassing?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “Harassing.”  It was obvious that he would not go into details.

Every week or so? I thought to myself.
We crossed Cuesta Pass in mid-afternoon, one of the most beautiful and yet unknown railroad summits in the United States, unknown primarily because of the dearth of traffic.  In much of the western United States, mountain passes have considerable vegetation on the western side, while the eastern slopes are usually wide open – because rain comes off the Pacific, mostly falling west of the summit.  For reasons that I do not understand, Cuesta Pass is just the opposite – heavy vegetation on the eastern slope, open grassland with a few trees on the west.

Westbound stacks emerging from a citrus orchard in San Timoteo Canyon.

The scenery, reminiscent of the lower elevations of Tehachapi Pass,  involves steep grass-covered hills rising to the peaks of the San Lucia Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  A long tunnel bores beneath the summit, and emerging into the sunlight that day, our train curved down the mountainside in elegant serenity toward San Luis Obispo, passing the big horseshoe above the euphemistically named California Men’s Colony (a prison).  If I lived in San Luis, I would drive into the mountains on the old stage coach road to photograph the two passenger trains each day, both of which roll through in the daylight.

South of town, the tracks approach the ocean at Pismo Beach, a quick tease, then turn back east to avoid massive sand dunes.  You see the water above the small beach houses huddled like sea lions on the rocks.  Then the tracks turn even further inland into a small valley of truck farms, then through isolated dry hills thirsty for moisture, even though only about ten miles from the ocean, then more sand dunes, then suddenly flat ground, almost perfectly level, with a minuscule slope down to more sand and then the blue Pacific.

To the east, mostly hidden behind small hills, sits Vandenburg Air Force Base, which the tracks soon leave behind as they run southwest to Point Arguello, a small outcropping of rocks battered constantly by Pacific waves.  Although the Air Force is nearby, you feel as though you might be on the edge of civilization, so far behind are the familiar California sprawl and congestion.  This must be close to what the Spanish missionaries first saw as they travelled north, constructing missions about a three days’ walk from each other.

Past Point Arguello, the tracks run east-west, then southeast-northwest, and now one is truly in isolated country.  The tracks run in a thin line near the white sand.  Above the tracks is a narrow dirt road hugging the edge of the hills.  Beyond the hills are mountains.  A few houses huddle near the dirt road, set back into the crevices that provide some protection from fierce winter storms.  Each dwelling that I could see from the train appeared to come equipped with huge wooden shutters to close when the winds rose off the endless Pacific.

Five Union Pacific units have crested the summit of Beaumont Hill and are headed east to the Imperial Valley.

In places, the tracks come within ten feet of cliffs dropping down to the water below.  Yet unlike Big Sur, where the mountains and water collide, the mountains here are recessed behind a narrow shelf of land which provides good ground for railroad construction.  One sits in the observation car and stares endlessly at the ocean, or else turns to the east and follows the mountains into the sky.

This is what Steinbeck had in mind when he wrote: 

"We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs. And I was the leader. The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed.  


"Then we came down to the sea, and it was done." He stopped and wiped his eyes until the rims were red. "That's what I should be telling instead of stories."  


When Jody spoke, Grandfather started and looked down at him. "Maybe I could lead the people someday," Jody said.  

The old man smiled. "There's no place to go. There's the ocean to stop you. There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them."  
“The Leader of the People”
Los Angeles.  Downtown.  Streets are lined by tiny shops with pull-down metal doors, like garages – the same architecture you see in the big cities of Mexico.  Guadalajara.  I thought of all the tiny shops in Guadalajara.

And police cars.  Every five minutes or so, a squadron of police cars would race through a downtown street, sometimes as many as ten cruisers together, lights flashing, sirens blaring.

And people walking in the middle of the street, as though daring vehicles, such as the rental one I am driving, to run into them.  Adolescents in the middle of the street on skateboards.  If they knew how bad my eyes are, they wouldn’t do that.
Palm Desert, where we spent a week in the dry October heat.  This is resort country, and we were staying in one, brown adobe flats secured behind walls and iron gates that swung open with the proper security code, as though we were entering a nuclear weapons facility.  This was “out-of-season,” hot and dry, affordable.

 About a half mile away was Southwest Church.  It looked like a shopping mall, with a correspondingly huge parking lot.  An electronic sign along the boulevard said:  “Services currently suspended due to Covid 19.  Join us online.”

San Bernardino Mountains



Westbound mid-trains approaching summit of San Gorgonio Pass.


My wife and mother had planned a shopping trip, so I was free for a day’s railfanning.  The weather was clear, though hot – above 100 degrees -- and I headed into the desert.  Actually, that is not correct.  I was already in the desert.  I headed out of town.  The desert is everywhere, with the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, the San Jacinto Mountains to the south.  The wind blows fiercely between them both day and night, as predictable as my memory is not, which is why California has constructed what has to be the world’s largest windfarm in the mountains’ shadows.  You can’t miss it.  Windmills are everywhere, in the valley beside the railroad tracks and interstate highway, climbing the slopes, on top of the sheer rock peaks, no vegetation in sight.  They (the windmills) look like alien invaders recently discharged from a mother ship somewhere close but out of sight.  In my sleep I see them crawling down the mountains, down the wide boulevards, climbing the walls of my resort, breaking the windows of my bedroom, where they slowly extract my small amount of brain cells.  They put the brain cells in a jar and leave me lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.  

One of two helper sets roaming the pass in aid of struggling trains.

These westbound stacks have just crested the summit of Beaumont Hill.  The houses are the first metastisizing wave spilling out of the basin into the open desert.  The San Bernardino Mountains watch in silence.  This is what I think Cajon Pass would look like were it not located in a National Forest.

I drove west on Highway 111 to the turnout for Snow Creek Canyon.  I headed north and approached the Union Pacific double-track mainline, stopping about halfway between it and the highway.  Both were no more than 50 yards away.  I had not slept well the previous night, so I leaned back in the front seat and closed my eyes, waiting for the next train.

I don’t know if I dozed or not, but my eyes popped open suddenly, and I saw standing beside my vehicle – all windows were rolled down because of the heat – a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties.  I don’t know where he came from.  He just appeared, like a quantum fluctuation.  He was short, with a small beard stubble on his chin and above his upper lip, and a small scar on one cheek.  His black hair was disheveled, as though he had been walking in the desert for days.

He was standing so close to the car that his body touched the door – too close – so close that I felt threatened.  He said he was thirsty and asked if I had any water.  I was carrying several bottles, and I gave him one.

It's funny how you can know something is wrong when a person stands too close to you.  He did, and I did.

He took a long drink, then looked at me and said, “Now give me your wallet.”

I looked back at him slowly and carefully to judge his level of seriousness.  He was very serious.  One hand was in his pocket, as though fingering a knife.

“No,” I said.

“Give me your wallet,” he repeated.

Eastbound mid-trains.

I sat there, saying nothing, looking at him, until he said for the third time, shouting, “Give me your wallet!”

“Look,” I said.  “I can give you some money.”  I gave him what I had – about sixty dollars.

“Now the wallet.”  He wanted the credit cards.

I shook my head.  Foolish or not, I would not do that.  

He seemed to be considering options.  For the longest time he just stood there, looking at me, as though trying to determine my level of seriousness.  I believed I was as serious as he. At least I hoped I was.

Then, suddenly, as though he had made a decision, he stepped toward the rear of the rented vehicle, reached through the open window into the back seat and grabbed one of my cameras – a 40-year-old Nikon FM2 containing an exposed roll of film that I had not removed.  (One of the shots on the exposed roll was of the Amtrak engines in Grand Junction, Colorado.)  My other camera was in the front seat beside me.  Camera bag and tri-pod were in the trunk.

He took off running with my sixty dollars, antique camera and undeveloped film, laughing loudly, jumping once or twice like a buck deer.  I opened the car door and climbed out.  Giving chase would have been futile.  I am 70 years old.  

Just then I heard the whistle of an approaching Union Pacific freight.    
I drove back to Palm Desert in the dusk.  The next day, wife, mother and I left the Golden State for home.

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